To Change or Not to Change

The saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the power of the word “nigger” has caused so much pain, that a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remove the word and replace it with the word “slave.” Auburn English professor Alan Gribben says his version of the classic novel allows schools who currently avoid the book to use it, but representatives from both Naperville school districts say they intend to stick with the original.

“We understand why it’s there, we understand that it’s a reflection of that time period, we recognize it’s there, but we don’t verbalize it in class,” said Mike Doman, Coordinator of Communication Arts at Naperville Central High School.

“They get that we’re losing it as a tool to get to a different message, a larger message, a message of power and words,” said Diane Tancredi, English Department Chair at Metea Valley High School.

The word “nigger” is used 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, and four times in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Professor Gribben’s version will combine the two novels into one book. It will also change the name of the villain in Tom Sawyer from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe,” and replace the term “half-breed” with “half-blood.” But critics of the new version say to change the books is to change history.

“He wrote it in a historical context. He wrote it as very subtly satirical, the talk about the time. And whether the n-word’s in there 219 times or not, it was an indication of what the time was like, what Huck grew up with,” said Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Bookshop.

But Professor Gribben defends the changes.

“We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinctive connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers,” says Gribben in the introduction to the new version.

Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a North Central College professor and race relations expert, says educators can use Twain’s original language as a part of their teaching effort.

“Replace it with n, or n-word, or something, not to censor necessarily, but to send a signal that this is such a powerful thing, that people have died as a result of this word, that we have to have the respect to ignore it,” said Caliendo.

Anderson’s Bookshop doesn’t plan to ignore the word. They will not carry Alan Gribben’s version of the two books. But if shoppers want a copy, Anderson’s will order one for them. The new version will be available in February.

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